Panjwai district in Kandahar province is home to four separate indigenous security forces: the Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), the Afghan Uniform Police (AUP), and the Afghan Local Police (ALP). Of these entities, the ANA’s Second Kandak (battalion) of the First Brigade, 205th Corps arguably most represents the face of the central Afghan government. The 2/1/205 ANA have maintained a consistent presence in Panjwai for five years, whereas the ANCOP, a relatively well-trained and equipped national police service, has units that rotate in for short tours in the district. The officers of the AUP, another technically national police service, are currently headed by a police chief with local tribal ties that can place him at odds with other leadership figures in the district. Finally, the ALP is a truly local movement, consisting of minimally trained area men who have opted to fight the Taliban.
The ANA are outsiders — the force includes many ethnicities that predominate in northern Afghanistan (i.e. Tajiks and Uzbeks) — a makeup which sets them apart from the Pashtun-dominated local police forces, as well as the Pashtun citizenry of Panjwai. This distinction has drawbacks and benefits. The Afghan soldiers don’t possess quite the local knowledge and intelligence sources maintained by the police (although their longtime presence in the area has mitigated this issue), but they are widely assessed as being better educated and trained, and their outsider status distances them from the tribal politics that influence local civilian leaders and cops. After the Americans, the ANA might resemble the closest thing to an honest broker in Panjwai.
US advisers to the 2/1/205 ANA and members of the American infantry units that partner with them on patrol offer mixed, though hesitantly positive ratings of the Afghan soldiers. Shortly after US forces with the 4-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team rotated into the district in late November, they faced a difficult transition period: a December directive from higher US command mandated that the Americans would no longer augment the Afghan Army with fuel or other logistical help. Forced to suddenly rely on the Afghan Ministry of Defense’s shaky requisitions system, the Afghan soldiers were significantly challenged for about three weeks. But then things started to click, and soon the ANA were obtaining their own fuel, food, and most essential supplies without US assistance.
Logistical issues remain. It is difficult for the Afghan soldiers to obtain parts for vehicle maintenance, for example. But the ANA have started to operate independently and with greater competence — at least when they decide to do so. Despite their improved capability, the soldiers of the 2nd Kandak opt out of a regular patrol schedule about 20 percent of the time, according to a number of Americans, and recently did so for two consecutive partnered patrols between April 7 and April 9. The reasons typically cited for a refusal to operate include holidays, weather, bureaucratic excuses, and sometimes just because the Afghan soldiers “don’t feel like it.” While some Americans offer a dim view of this inconsistency, some of the same individuals, at other times, have been genuinely impressed with the ANA: “I’ve seen them get out there and do crazy operations, be really aggressive,” remarked one US infantryman.
On March 28, the ANA, along with police forces, led Operation Baz (“Hawks”) 1392, a major clearing operation across eight villages in the western horn of Panjwai. Over five days of searches and disruption patrols, the ANA found and disabled 10 IEDs; killed three insurgents while losing one Afghan soldier; and found a large cache consisting of 30 IEDs, 100 pounds of homemade explosives, two bicycles, two radios, two bags of batteries used in IEDs, and five plastic AK-47s used for weapons training by insurgents.
The Long War Journal interviewed Major Toryalai Najibi, the 2nd Kandak’s executive officer, and Captain Said Aga Mahammadi, the unit’s ‘Battle Captain’ (operations officer) just after the completion of the Baz 1392 operation. Mahammadi is a methodically-spoken 50-year-old from Kapisa province who has spent 30 years with the Afghan Army in its Soviet-affiliated and post-2001 forms. Najibi is a gregarious 43-year-old from Logar province who has been a self-described “freedom fighter” since he was 17; this stretch includes 12 years with the present Afghan Army and before that, service with the Mujahedeen who fought the Soviets and then the Taliban. As Najibi pointed out with a smile, the latter experience put him on opposing sides of a war with his current Battle Captain many years ago.
The Long War Journal’s interview with Major Najibi and Captain Mahammadi follows.
The Long War Journal: Can you tell me a little bit about your recent operation (Baz 1392) – how did it go and what was its goal?
Battle Captain Said Aga Mahammadi: The second Kandak is responsible for all of western Panjwai, and it conducts a number of different operations throughout the year. Basically, every time we conduct an operation it’s based on intel that we receive on enemy depots, enemy activities, enemy manpower, and enemy weapons caches, if available, and from that we put together our operational plans. This is how the most recent operation was conducted.
We had a very successful operation. The participants were the Afghan Army, Afghan Uniform Police, Afghan Local Police, and the Afghan National Civil Order Police. They were all combined forces that participated in this operation.
LWJ: And what did the operation accomplish?
Captain Mahammadi: We were able to get some of the weapons caches and also some of the training sites of the Taliban. We set up in the villages and we were able to get a hold on the area and remove the insurgents. And we sent a report to our higher commanders about the results we achieved.
LWJ: How does the ANA work with the AUP, ALP, and ANCOP? Do they work well, are there any issues?
Captain Mahammadi: Since the beginning the ANA have taken a leading role in any operation, so for any operation to take place, the [uniform] police, the local police, and ANCOP are supposed to coordinate their plans with us. So far, we haven’t had any problem with them and I can say we have a great relationship.
LWJ: It is a perception among Western advisers in Afghanistan that there are sometimes cultural tensions between the Afghan Army units and local civilians [in Pahstun areas] because of a different ethnic makeup. Do your soldiers get along with local civilians, or is there a resistance to the Army because many of the soldiers are ethnically different?
Captain Mahammadi: In the beginning when the ANA was formed, there were some of these problems because the ethnicities of most of the people who backed the new government were from the north (of Afghanistan) and we had some problems in the south when we came to Pashtun areas. But right now we have some soldiers who are from neighboring provinces who speak the [Pashtun] language of the local people, and now we don’t have any problems with the locals here.
Executive Officer Major Toryalai Najibi: The local people used to think whoever is with the ANA are Americans, because the Americans are operating here. But right now I think the people appreciate us even more than the local police here, and I’ll tell you the reason: the ANA soldiers will never take any of people’s property; they will never unlawfully kill anybody; they will not fire on anyone unless fired upon; and ANA soldiers and staff are better educated and have better relationships with tribal leaders and the elders of the villages.
In Kandahar, eight different languages are spoken, each tribe has a different dialect and they have disagreements between themselves. I’m from Logar province, Captain Mohammadi is from [Kapisa], and Captain [Bert] Hughes [points to an American adviser] is from America; we don’t have any problems with each other. But in Kandahar province they are all from here and they have problems among themselves, [including] the DGOV (district governor) the DCOP (district chief of police), whoever is in security and all the government staff who are from this province itself.
So the problem here is really a tribal one; for example, the Alikozai tribe has problems with the Popalzai tribe, so there is a lot of intertribal conflict. It’s been about 10 years I’ve been here doing my duty … with the Americans. I see all these tribal conflicts, but the [local citizens] don’t really have any problems with us. I think it would be good if people from other areas [traveled] to do their jobs [in new areas].
LWJ: So you’re saying that the ANA serves as an honest broker between the tribes; because they don’t have the tribal ties they can be neutral?
Major Najibi: Yes, we are just like American forces; we don’t touch anybody’s money, we don’t really care what tribe someone is from, who their elder is, we aren’t influenced by those [tribal] issues that they have among themselves. If someone shows us a good face, we make sure that we show them a good face in return. If they shoot at us, we will certainly shoot back at them.
LWJ: Is there a flip side to that benefit of being an outsider? Because the ANA are not from around here, maybe the civilians are hesitant to talk to outsiders?
Major Najibi: I don’t think so. I think we have better relationships with the locals than the police who are originally from this area. I think Captain Hughes is also aware of this, because we are really good people and we are really treating [the local population] well. I don’t think an ANA soldier at any given time is going to do anything unlawful toward the people, I think if you get out with us and ask the locals about the ANA, they are all going to tell you positive things about us. Please ask the locals if we have ever unlawfully entered their property, if we have ever taken any of their belongings, or if we have ever disrespected the tribal elders of their villages.
LWJ: I have heard positive things about the ANA from [your American advisers], the district governor, and civilians who live near the Panjwai district center [and the Zangabad area]. The other side of that question is what problems do local people have with the police that they don’t have with the ANA?
Major Najibi: Whenever we go on duty, we have our own fuel, we have our own ammunition, we get our salary paid on time, we get our food delivered on time for our soldiers, and we don’t have any problems. I think the police don’t get paid enough, they don’t get enough food for their soldiers from their commanders, and they aren’t well supplied, so they are forced to take [these resources] from people’s homes.
LWJ: There have been problems with police forces in certain parts of Afghanistan that are so significant that local citizens wind up hating them more than the Taliban. In other sections, the problems [with corruption] are milder, and people work with the police [despite taxation]. How much of a problem do you think corruption is here, and do you feel that the local people will work with the police?
Major Najibi: I think in Kandahar the problem is different. Captain Hughes is from America and he doesn’t know any Taliban, I’m from a different province and I don’t know the locals here, but the local police know who belongs to the Taliban. They know who is active in the insurgency and who is not. And that is why the Taliban is so against them and tries to kill so many of them; to make it unable for them to pass this information to other forces. Right now that’s why the Taliban is on the hunt for the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and in every place they can find them they will kill them. They are also telling the tribal elders and others in the villages that they should prevent anyone from joining the local police. The Taliban … is threatening the local elders to disrupt the relationship between the ALP and the locals because they fear the ALP.
LWJ: How is security in Panjwai now and how has it been trending?
Major Najibi: Right now I think security is great in Panjwai. I don’t know if you guys are aware, but a few days ago the [Taliban’s] shadow district governor was killed. [See LWJ report, US special operations forces kill Panjwai shadow governor.]
LWJ: Yes. Why has [security] been [improving]?
Major Najibi: I think there are a few reasons. One of them is that the DCOP’s (district chief of police Lt. Col. Sultan Mohammad) forces are increasing in Panjwai, another is the increase in the Afghan Local Police in several different areas, a third reason I can give you is our (ANA) operations jointly and [independently] with ISAF support, and another reason is the locals are aware of where the Taliban gets their support from, and that’s why they are backing the government right now. A little while ago the Taliban captured two civilian engineers that were building roads and they killed them at (the village of) Garandai. After they killed them they hung them from the trees and shot them a few times. And right in front of the bodies, they placed seven IEDs for us.
During a shura, the district governor asked us to remove the bodies from the site. When we went there we were hit three times by a Taliban ambush, but finally we were able to neutralize all of the IEDs, fight with the Taliban, and get the bodies out of there. People are now worried that the Taliban kills more civilians than soldiers because they can’t fight against armed people; that’s why they kill civilians. And now people are really angry about this. They also see other provinces being developed, schools being opened, health system is being emplaced, and they see that even though their President (Hamid Karzai) and their king is from this province, it is still undeveloped and the illiteracy rate is still high. So they are becoming aware that this is all thanks to the insurgency.
LWJ: I understand that this may sound like a simple question, but can you explain to me who the enemy is, and why they are fighting?
Major Najibi: The enemies are Pakistanis and Iranians and there are some people that we have files on who we know come from Pakistan to fight here. The Taliban’s shadow district governor who was just killed, we know that just a week ago he came from Quetta, Pakistan.
LWJ: But Panjwai is considered the birthplace of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, so obviously some of the insurgency is based here. What percentage of the insurgency is local, even if it is currently controlled from Pakistan?
Major Najibi: I think it’s 50/50; in 10 people, five are from Pakistan and five are locals from Panjwai. But it is the clerics in Pakistan that encourage the people because of religion to fight against the ANA because we are working with the Americans, and they feel the Americans are fighting against Islam. The Taliban enjoyed power here for a while, and they are still dreaming about getting that power back, and having the same regime they had in the past.
But I think the local people are the enemies of the Taliban. I think the ratio for government support is 80 percent for the government, 20 percent against. And I think that the 20 percent is also being influenced under the propaganda of the enemy. The Taliban are also encouraging people to plant poppy, and a few days ago when we went to destroy poppy fields, [people] were shooting at us. I think the Taliban is encouraging people to plant the poppy so they make extra income, and thus back the Taliban. But otherwise, in our religion, opium is forbidden and cultivating poppy is also forbidden, according to our Koran.
[Note: poppy, though illegal, remains a common crop in southern Afghanistan. Its continuing ubiquity stems from its lucrative yield, ease of cultivation, and limited resources for and selective application of eradication efforts, the latter often due to official corruption]
LWJ: How is your relationship with the Americans, and how are you operating in conjunction with them?
Major Najibi: The same way we are sitting side to side, we are also operating in conjunction with them, side to side.
LWJ: But as the Americans are drawing down and pulling back, how much is the ANA working with the Americans at this point compared to in the past?
Major Najibi: Right now the Americans are just providing blocking positions during operations, and also providing air support.
LWJ: It is my understanding that in the past the ANA has had trouble getting their own fuel and other logistical support from their own government systems. It’s also my understanding that the Americans have withdrawn support of this nature and that the ANA have found ways to get these resources. How have you managed to obtain these resources?
Major Najibi: Right now we don’t have any problems; we get our salaries, ammunition, food, and supplies on a weekly basis.
LWJ: And do you think this supply is sustainable past 2014, when you are on your own?
Major Najibi: The world community has promised they will keep it this way and we hope it is sustained the same way. President [Barack] Obama has promised that some American forces will remain past 2014 and they will not leave Afghanistan. Also the American [Congress] said that you won’t withdraw from Afghanistan and as long as your soldiers can remain, they will remain here.
LWJ: What about your own government? For example, I’ve spoken to the district governor, and he has very low financial support from the government in Kandahar City and Kabul; is there greater support from the Afghan Ministry of Defense to the Afghan Army, and is it a priority to project [force] into Kandahar province long term?
Major Najibi: We don’t have any problems, sir. On a monthly basis 24,000 liters of fuel gets distributed to us, and we distribute it among our bases here in Panjwai. Every month the soldiers get paid for their job and soldiers get to go on leave that they accrue, and we manage to cycle our companies every once in a while. The police forces have their own problems, but we don’t have any problems with salary, phone cards, or anything.
LWJ: As the Americans pull back, two resources the ANA do not have the ability to replace are helicopters, such as those used for medevac, and the reconnaissance and surveillance resources. How does the Afghan Army plan to cope with the loss of these resources?
Major Najibi: We recognize that there are problems but we think that with the withdrawal of Americans, the government is going to step by step, little by little increase the size of ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) in general, and there shouldn’t be any problem, even with few Americans remaining here in the country.
LWJ: Do you get any support here in Panjwai from the Afghan Air Force helicopters, such as the Mi-35 (Hind) and Mi-17 (Hip) helicopters that are based out of Kandahar Airfield?
Major Najibi: They are all expired and not mission capable. [See LWJ report from 2010, Soviet workhorses, ISAF training form the backbone of a developing Afghan Air Force]
LWJ: In [the news] we have heard a great deal about insider attacks, or “green-on-blue” [Afghan on American] attacks. How much of an issue has that been in Panjwai and the wider Kandahar [province,] and how do you prevent such attacks?
Major Najibi: It’s been about 10 years for me working with Americans and personally, I have not witnessed any green-on-blue attack. In about 80 to 100 kandaks of ANA there were no suspicious people or activities among them. But lately some of the people who have been influenced by others conduct those attacks. But this kandak has been here for the past five years in Panjwai and not one single attack or attempt has occurred here.
LWJ: That seems like a long time for one national unit to be based in an area, is this normal?
Major Najibi: It’s not normal, but they decided to leave this kandak here because during this time we came to know the area, we know the enemy’s activities, and we know what type of IEDs they use and where they put them. And that’s why I think if they bring a new kandak in here, they are going to take a lot of casualties.
LWJ: I heard about a scenario involving a civilian janitor here on the base who tried to fake a Koran desecration. Can you explain to me what happened? And does this happen often, when insurgents try to exploit cultural tensions?
Major Najibi: [laughing] To answer your question, the problem is because of the Americans, but please don’t write that. [more laughter] I’m just joking with you … because it was the Americans who brought the contractors here to clean the trash cans and the restrooms. Also, the contractor was a native from Kandahar. And this guy, whether he was threatened, encouraged, or paid by the Taliban, [decided] to do it himself. We took care of it.
The Americans arrested those two people, brought them to Kandahar Airfield and returned them to Zangabad after the investigation was complete. I arrested them, tied them together, and let them go but I told them, ‘Even if the Americans ever decide to let you come back inside this base, I won’t.’ I think their intent was to disrupt the relationship between us and the Americans. I also tasked our intelligence officer to do a background check on everyone who enters the camp and to get a guarantee letter from one of the members of the Kandahar provincial council for anyone who comes to work at Zangabad.
LWJ: Regarding the local uprising that had started in [the village of] Peshinagan and spread to [the] Sperwan [area]: How widespread is it and how did it start?
Captain Mahammadi: The people in this area are really bothered by the fighting and the pressure from the Taliban. Also they are not happy with how the Taliban treat them. Finally they became united, and 13 villages around Zanganbad rose up against the Taliban and backed the government forces. The following villages: Peshinagan, Korozai, Sapozai, Alikozai, and other villages like that.
LWJ: Is it sustainable? For example, there has been another, similar uprising in Andar, another part of Afghanistan, but there are reports that the Taliban have come back and are crushing the uprising ….
Captain Mahammadi: I don’t think that this will occur here because we are in very close contact with the locals and we are supporting them. Any time the Taliban tries to attack them or wants to bother civilians, we will be there in a short time to back them. Also, another solution would be if government starts reconstruction programs here, for example potable water [projects], road construction, new schools, and health clinics; that will keep the people away from the insurgents and with the government.
Bill Ardolino’s forthcoming book Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda, which tells the story of the tribal Awakening in 2006-2007 that changed the course of the Iraq War, will be published by Naval Institute Press on May 15. The book has received a ‘starred’ review from Publishers Weekly. All of the author’s proceeds from the first edition will benefit the Semper Fi Fund for injured service members.